Dead and Buried

A Drab, Sour Resurrection of ‘Pet Sematary’

Mary Lambert’s 1989 movie version of of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary depicts the ghoulish consequences of a burial ground that reanimates the dead. With its chewy Maine accents, a cast that includes the dude who played Herman Munster, gross-out practical make-up effects, and a cameo from the author himself, it’s a spooky hoot that spawned a 1992 sequel.


PET SEMATARY ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer
Written by: Jeff Buhler
Starring: Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow
Running time: 101min


 

But the music-video director’s quasi-camp approach veered away from the unusually bleak tone of the 1983 bestseller. Even King himself admits that his book “just spirals down into darkness.” That said, some of its literary conceits play better on the page than on the screen. When the undead body of two-year-old becomes a possessed demonic murder, it’s hard for a movie to show that ’lil hellion as anything but a Chucky rip-off. And Chucky is hilarious.

The original definitely left room for improvement, so it makes sense that a new generation of filmmakers would want to take another stab at the mournful ghost story. But Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer let their reverence get in the way of a bloody good time. When it comes to their remake of this tragic tale of necromantic interment, the ground is still sour.

More weepy than creepy, the new-but-not-improved version delivers a shallow grave of gloomy emotions. The drab color palette of the wan cinematography wraps all the action in a muddy haze, and the belabored script even tweaks a few plot points until they’re almost laughable. One character now suffers Death by Dumbwaiter, which seems more like an outtake from a Scary Movie reboot. That might have worked in the 1989 movie, but this Pet Sematary is supposed to be serious.

Some fans will be happy that this new version mentions the Wendigo, an evil spirit from Native American lore that effectively controls all the ancient cemetery’s wicked goings-on. The 1989 film completely jettisoned that part of the book. But don’t get your hopes up: in this new film, the Wendigo gets token lip service and not much else.

Jason Clarke’s dour patriarch Louis reads as quasi-sociopathic from the get-go, which is a problem when his character is the catalyst for all the film’s supernatural entanglements. Dutiful wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) fares better, and has a terrific scene when her newly undead child chillingly embraces her. But her rewritten fate is barely as haunting as it is in the book, a plot point wonderfully preserved in the 1989 film. And when it comes to wrapping up, this new iteration just kind of ends, with a TBD crescendo that seems both anticlimactic and self-evident.

Pet Sematary contains more than enough DNA from King’s original vision to keep it from being a complete chore. The directors left skin-crawling names like Little God Swamp intact, along with spine-tingling descriptions of the cursed land: “it feeds on your grief.” But when someone pulls out a kitchen knife from its wooden block and pops out from behind the bed for a surprise attack, you know this film is really shuffling along familiar territory. It may be animated, but it sure isn’t very alive. Sometimes dead is better, at least when it comes to this moribund franchise. You’ve been warned: they don’t come back the same.

PET SEMATARY, from Paramount Pictures.

Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. He is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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